Political Pandering and the Bill of Rights

August 5, 2010

A pamphlet about the U.S. Constitution handed out to a local Boy Scout troop when we visited our Congressman’s office in Washington has come in handy in keeping up with politics these days. There it was in the first words in the First Amendment to one of the world’s most important documents, the tool on which our democracy and freedoms rely, and the body of laws that our national elected officials and servicemen and women pledge to support and defend: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..”

So why then has standing up for a fundamental Constitutional protection become an act of political courage? That question was one of the least savory aspects of the primary battles that wrapped up this week for U.S. House seats and the Governor’s job in Tennessee but it sadly reflected recent political pandering and religious bigotry at the national level.

The lightning rod in Tennessee’s 6th District race was a proposal to expand an Islamic mosque and community center in Murfreesboro. It drew a nativist protest march last month championed by Republican House candidate Lou Ann Zelenik who tried to club her rivals with the issue. Her opponents on the Republican slate did not shine in their reactions. Jim Tracy took a pass on the question of religious liberty altogether but did offer his concern about the need for a traffic signal and turn lane near the facility. Diane Black issued a one-hand, other-hand statement about the mosque challenge affirming that “Americans must be free to practice their faith” but hardened her message – seemingly not wanting to lose ground to Zelenik among voters who slept through their high school class on the Bill of Rights — that we must be vigilant about “Islamic institutions” and “violent jihadism.”

Along the way the controversy seeped into the Governor’s contest with Ron Ramsey echoing Black’s approach of affirming staunch support for the First Amendment – that’s nice – while undermining Muslims’ eligibility for those Constitutional protections. He was not, afterall, sure whether Islam was really a religion – “is it a nationality” — or whether its 1.5 billion worldwide adherents weren’t “a cult or whatever you want to call it.” Not to be outdone Zach Wamp, in the eleventh hour of his failed bid for the governorship, jumped in to share what was “in his heart,” a reverence for America’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage, seemingly – in the midst of the Murfreesboro brouhaha — twisting the concept into a codeword for Islamaphobia.

Absent was mention of a centerpiece of American heritage, our founding fathers who penned the Bill of Rights. In the exceptionally well crafted words of the First Amendment they left out which religions deserved protection and which were free to be jerked around by the government and those who sought to serve in it.

Enter Ben Leming, an Iraq war vet, on the Democrat card for the congressional seat who tried to restore some sanity, if not the dignity that had been irrevocably lost, to the process. He jabbed a finger into the eye of fearmongering, “I believe in the United States Constitution. I have fought and will continue to fight to uphold every single right guaranteed by it. This includes the right to worship freely. Just because we may not agree with someone’s religious views does not mean we get to decide whether they can have a place of worship in the community. This is simply un-American.”

Political figures at the national level are energized about the question of religious freedom as well, with the most prominent voices sadly engaged in pandering and fearmongering over a proposed mosque in lower Manhattan. There has been a vociferous effort to derail the facility on the grounds it was too close to the World Trade Center site. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a nonsensical effort to bargain away the U.S. Constitution for religious reciprocity with a foreign government said there should be no mosque there until Saudi Arabia allowed churches in the holy city of Mecca. It would be akin to opposing St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on the grounds that Vatican City, a sovereign state, had no synagogues. Former Governor and Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin joined in with her now famous wordiness faux pas calling on New Yorkers to “refudiate” the mosque.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly put the question in its proper Constitutional context, most recently sharing remarks at a speech delivered within site of the Statue of Liberty, “..the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
 Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
 This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.”

At a time when the United States and much of the world are at war with criminals who are trying to hijack Islam for their own violent purposes it is easy to be sucked into the political pandering and fearmongering of politicians seeking to exploit a poor understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the facts of the cases. After 9/11 President Bush rightly drew a distinction between Islam and those who sought to destroy it and us. That distinction has been reaffirmed by the current Administration and by innumerable religious leaders who understand that “respecting an establishment of religion” and fighting criminals don’t belong in the same conversation.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Political Pandering Ad Nauseum, A Special Comment
August 26, 2010 at 8:03 am
Political Pandering – “A Postcard for American Intolerance”
August 26, 2010 at 8:58 am
Political Pandering Column Postscript
October 10, 2010 at 10:28 am

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

admin August 8, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Mr. Ryan: Enjoyed your “Political Pandering….” column in the Herald-Citizen today. I do believe you have misrepresented the original intent of the freedom of religion section in the First Amendment. Much has been written regarding the founders original intent. With regards to the subject of religion the purpose of the First Amendment is to prohibit the Federal Government (Congress) from establishing a national religion. This country’s founders did not want to follow the “Church of England” path. In fact, the purpose of all of the first ten amendments was to limit the authority of the federal government; not grant the federal government any new authority.

During the period the Federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights were ratified (1988-1791) a majority of the ratifying states had their own official state religions and these were not given up as a condition of joining the federal government. Nor is there anywhere in the Constitution where the states granted the Federal Government any power over religion (Article 1, Section 8-9); or were the states denied the right to exercise power over religion (Article 1, Section 10 and Amendment 10).

I believe your column would have been more powerful if you had directed your arguement to the state governments (Tennessee and New York) since the Federal Government has no constitutional authorithy in this arena.


Charles Rush

Editor August 9, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Dear Mr. Rush:

Thanks so much for taking time to share your perspective and your knowledge about the Constitution and Federal law. I wish I was more educated on legal issues like this beyond the conventional wisdom shared by most American citizens who try to keep up with the details. Most of us believe the Bill of Rights protects our religious freedoms. I would share with you a recent post from the Brookings “think-tank” on the subject [Assessing Decision-making on the NYC Islamic Center: Continuing Our Tradition of Religious Liberty] which said in part:

“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution bars the state from singling out certain religions for special disabilities. In 1993, for example, the United States Supreme Court said: ‘At a minimum, the protections of the Free Exercise Clause pertain if the law at issue discriminates against some or all religious beliefs . . . .’ This includes discrimination that ‘is masked as well as overt.'”

Further, a federal law that specifically deals with religious institutions and land use regulation, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), plainly states: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.” Whether the entity is Muslim, Mormon, or Methodist, Congress recognized that faith-based discrimination by the government must not be tolerated.”

Thus, if government officials were to reject or specially burden plans for mosques or other Islamic institutions because of their religious affiliation, it would violate both the Constitution and federal statutory law. This would be true whether the discrimination was plain to see or whether it lurked behind objections about things like traffic, aesthetics, and noise. ”

Thanks again for your interest in the column and your thoughtful feedback.

Pat Ryan

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